Applied research complements basic nutrition research, which generally does not focus on specific foods.
According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 “to promote the progress of science…”, research can be described as follows:
- Basic research aims to provide a fuller knowledge or understanding of the subject under study, rather than any practical application of that knowledge.
- Applied research generally follows basic research with the intention of advancing the potential of scientific discoveries or improvements in technology, materials, processes, methods, devices, or techniques.
- Development covers the systematic use of scientific and technical knowledge in designing, developing, testing, or evaluating potential new or improved products or services to meet specific performance requirements or objectives.
From a nutrition perspective, the following examples are one way to describe research within each of these categories, acknowledging there is overlap between categories.
Basic nutrition research discovers and adds knowledge to understand the known essential nutrients as well as emerging bioactive components in foods, their mechanisms of action, and expands fundamental knowledge around digestion, absorption, metabolism, utilization, excretion, and biologic effects. To illustrate by example, basic research has helped establish levels of amino acids and total protein needed to support growth and to maintain lean body mass. And it led to the discovery that lutein/zeaxanthin are biologically active carotenoids that are a key structural component in macular pigment in retina tissue of the eye.
Applied nutrition research determines how food components, specific foods, and diets are associated with health outcomes and markers of health. Using eggs as an example, research can demonstrate whether eating a specified number of eggs each day is associated with a wide range of health outcomes, such as maintaining or improving lean body mass and physical performance, or maintaining or improving lutein/zeaxanthin levels in macular pigment of the eye.
Development nutrition research can design foods for specific health outcomes. Eggs developed to contain higher levels of omega-3 fats or vitamin D are two examples of development research.
Having characterized the types of research, it is important to consider who funds each type of research. Development work skews to the private sector which functions to develop products and services that consumers buy in the marketplace and therefore is not discussed in further detail here.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the largest funding source for nutrition research in the U.S., reporting nutrition related research projects funded at 1.5 billion dollars in 2015. Projects receiving funds during 2015 are listed on the NIH website and notably emphasize basic mechanism research and applications related to medical conditions. Based on a review of NIH grant titles, there are very few projects investigating whether and how specific foods are associated with health and health promotion.
The US Department of Agriculture leads several programs related to foods, diet and health, including through the Agriculture Research Service (ARS). The mission of the ARS Human Nutrition Program is to define the role of food and its components in optimizing health throughout the life cycle for all Americans by conducting high national priority research. Much of this research is conducted at one of the ARS centers either on its own or in partnership with collaborators.
Additionally, farmers fund research through commodity research and promotion programs that are overseen by USDA. This research serves the fundamental purpose of answering questions as to what it means to eat specific foods, within the context of everyday lifestyles and as it relates to health outcomes. In the case of eggs, funding for this type of applied research is generated from assessments on egg producers in the U.S. designated to investigate the role of eggs in human health. The Egg Nutrition Center through the American Egg Board is responsible for funding over $1.5 million in nutrition research grants annually and serves as a resource to health practitioners on matters relating to egg consumption and health. Without this research, there would be a funding gap in the U.S. with respect to translating basic research findings into what it means when deciding whether and how many eggs to eat for good health.
As these examples illustrate, applied research creates value from fundamental knowledge by making it understandable and actionable to health professionals and ultimately people, who make decisions about foods they eat. Without applied nutrition research, we would know a lot about nutrition but know little about what to do when it comes to eating foods to promote good health.
NIH nutrition grants as of November 2015. http://report.nih.gov/categorical_spending_project_listing.aspx?FY=2014&ARRA=N&DCat=Nutrition
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